The Unz Review: An Alternative Media Selection
A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
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This is probably relevant if you have a blog or run a webzine of some sort. It’ll be much more abstract if you are a commenter, and can’t relate concretely to weirdo creeps who persistently spam your comments and contact you via email. In relation to my own two primary complaints from my experience on that web-show:

1) A group of commenters, lead by one particular commenter, persistently verbally abused me as a racist repeatedly even if I was talking about something totally unrelated to race (the commenters admitted that their goal was make sure that I was not invited to the show again through the campaign of harassment). Of course most of these individuals were anonymous. I told the producer that I wasn’t excited about this in relation to my future possible appearances, and he admitted that they were looking into correcting these issues.

2) The commenters are not, in my opinion, as smart as Bob Wright thinks they are. One regular commenter would offer opinions on evolution based on what Stephen Jay Gould write. This a problem for anyone whose bread & butter is evolution (I’m sure the commenter is not knowledgeable enough to know that this is a problem, though at least Bob Wright acknowledged this specific issue politely). Another reoccurring tendency is that comments sections should serve as forums where one can correct factual errors on the part of the guests. Factual errors occur in the unedited heat of the moment (read some of my posts, and you see that all the time). But often when I skim the comments I don’t see the appropriate correction. On one or two occasions I left a quick comment pointing out obvious problems in a guests’ assertions because no one else had. When it comes to quantitative social metrics guests routinely are off by significant multiples, and no one seems to correct them in the discussion thread.

On the more general problem of comments, trolls, etc., one must address the question of norms, values, and ends. If I was blogging to maximize short-term pageviews I would encourage robust discussion of every single post by as many people as possible. I don’t encourage robust discussion by as many people possible because I will trade pageviews for quality of discussion. If people comment, they often feel invested in a post, and will come back over and over to engage. But sometimes you don’t want people to be invested, because they aren’t contributing genuine returns to your “bottom line.” Of course, if you want pageviews, you are getting returns back to the bottom line. But if you want informative and intelligent discussion which will elevate more than the egos of specific and limited interlocutors then you aren’t adding anything. Over the long-term even maximizing pageviews by encouraging commenting can be counterproductive, as is addressed in the discussion. Once comments turn into trash it is very hard to reverse that perception, and people don’t read them, aside from the regular trolls for whom it is a hobby to foul up the public spaces of the internet.

My own empirical assessment has been well articulated repeatedly:

1) Most people have very little worth saying on most topics.

2) Some people have a great deal worth saying on some topics.

To encourage the latter to comment and take time out of their days and contribute to the public circulation of information you need to squelch the former. At different points individuals may be in class #1 or class #2. When was the last time I wrote about Hellenistic influences on Umayyad art? I’ve read a little bit about this topic, but I don’t have anything worth saying.

One particular aspect of writing on the internet, and encouraging on-point comments, is that people contribute comments in relation to how they perceive the writer. A major reason I repeatedly identify as a conservative on this weblog is that for several years there was a strange tendency of liberal self-congratulation in the comments, with the mistaken assumption that I was a liberal who would laugh along. Since I blog about science this is a reasonable prior, so I periodically attempt to “update” readers. I think it works. The only problem is that sometimes the new model is that I’m as stupid as other conservatives when it comes to the details of cultural diversity and history, when the reality is that on any given topic of cultural diversity and history you should bet on me, and not anyone else, as knowing what they are talking about (i.e., Roger Bigod may know more about American colonial history, with a focus on Virginia, Paul Conroy knows far more about Ireland than I do, and Patrick Wyman has forgotten more about Late Antiquity than I have, but I am willing to bet that I know more about the other domains outside of their specialty than any of them. I would enjoy meeting someone who knows as much about Roman history and Chinese history as I do, but I haven’t met that person yet. Feel free to step up and engage me simultaneously on both).

Which brings us back to norms, values, etc. My main goal as a blogger is to get paid in insight and information. To maintain this stream requires a careful balancing of openness to new interactions, but a strong discrimination against superficial and glib entrants into the public forum. And this being a social system the individuals themselves are not static. I have been introduced to books by readers, and have introduced books to readers. We are in some ways objects of emulation when it comes to particular techniques and sources of personal self-cultivation (I have acknowledged that Dave Munger and Zachary Latif have influenced my own production a great deal, as I have emulated aspects of their own styles; one could add other bloggers, readers, and scholars who I have met via the blog).

All of this requires an almost ecological and organismic mindset. I obviously aim for the highest quality and quantity of readership. But I understand that those who comment must be a narrowly constrained subset of the readership. And even among the commenters there are the casual transients, and the regulars. And finally among the regulars one must assess their strengths and peculiar domains of specialty. This world is most definitely not flat. Rather, this is an information pyramid, with very few apex organisms as one ascends up the cascade of info-trophic layers.

• Category: Science • Tags: Blog, Blogs 
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Bora Zivkovic has what is basically a short history of science blogging up. I was one of those who was there at the beginning, and I honestly can’t say that he left anything of great relevance out of the narrative. In normal circumstances I don’t think much about what I do, I do. But one thing I will add: blogging isn’t some exotic and peculiar aspect of science anymore, many labs use WordPress as a content management system. Blogs as they were 10 years ago aimed out, toward the populace. Today the info-ecological niches what we would have called blogs fill are much more diverse. Some blogs basically exist to update lab members and interested researchers on their publications and journal club. I add these to my RSS even though I’m not a member of the lab and don’t participate in the journal club because they’re educational to me (e.g., gc bias). Imagine, if you will, that R. A. Fisher had had a blog at Rothamsted. Though this is an opportunity to point you to the R.A. Fisher Digital Archive in case you don’t know about it. We live in rich times for the infovore.

Oh, and in the interests of social media whoring:

• Category: Science • Tags: Blog, Blogs, Science Blogs 
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Sean already mentioned it, and now that I’m feeling a bit better I want to as well: The annual 3QuarksDaily science writing contest nominees are out. You can vote here. Too many of my friends are up for nomination, so I’m going to avoid making any endorsements. But it’s a nice curation of awesome blogs and posts.

• Category: Science • Tags: Blog, Blogs 
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The empire of the boy-king grows! Meet the New Wired Science All-Star Bloggers. David Dobbs and Brian Switek have already set up their domains, but Dr. Daniel MacArthur will be moving in the near future as well. And to think that Dr. Dan was just a commenter over at ScienceBlogs in the spring of 2006 when I first became aware of him. Now he’s a vassal of the prince of neuropundits!

There’s a little more news to come from what I’ve heard, and not from Wired. Soon.

• Category: Science • Tags: Blog, Blogs 
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Vivienne Raper who analyzed the Wikio Top 100 Science Blogs left a comment below:

I’m now curious to find out why there are no ‘popular’ blogs in certain subjects. Do working condensed matter physicists who want to engage with the public write about astrophysics? Or are astrophysicists the only physicists who want to blog for the public? Or does the public only read astrophysics blogs?

675px-CrabNebulaHubbleThe contrast between astrophysics and solid state physics is a clue to what’s going on I think. Solid-state physics is very important work. Like agricultural science solid-state physics may not have all the public glamor, but it puts bread on the table of our civilization. So why all the love for astrophysics? I think part of the issue is real straightforward. Astrophysics lends itself easily to a visual “hook,” such as the false-color image of the Crab Nebulae to the left. This isn’t necessarily the heart of astrophysics of course, but it’s a way to connect with the broader public in a literally eye-catching manner. Compare the image search results for “solid state physics” vs. “astrophysics. Not a good sign if the first page is overloaded with head-shots of old nerdy white, Middle Eastern, and brown guys. But that’s not the only issue here. I think there’s a “soul factor” at work. To understand what I’m getting at, let’s look at Vivienne’s breakdown by the umbrella categories:


Neuroscience, evolution, and astrophysics speak to normative concerns of our species. That is, they grapple with values. The brain is the seat of our self in a material sense, and neuroscience emerges out of a deep tradition of philosophy of mind which goes back 2,500 years. Evolution has had a fraught relationship with teleology, and some philosophers of biology have quipped that their field to a first approximation can be reduced to philosophy of evolution. Molecular biology is more fundamental in a concrete proximate sense, but evolutionary biology is more fundamental in the ultimate abstract sense. And finally, astrophysics when it bleeds into cosmology rather obviously treads on the ground which was once the domain of mythology, of cosmogony. In a very broad sense these disciplines push against our conceptions of ontology. Astrophysics in the most general sense, neuroscience in a very anthropocentric sense, and evolutionary biology spanning the two extremes.

I think the anti-alternative medicine category also emerges from the same dynamic, but mainly not to appeal to it, but to battle it. Modern scientific medicine does not jive with the deep intuitions of many people of how bodily processes work, They wish for a more “holistic” and “natural” model. I use the quotations because these sorts of terms are more figures of speech in this context than anything substantive. If there was a “holistic” and “natural” alternative engineering discipline then engineering weblogs would no doubt sprout up to battle intuitive pseudo-science.

Mathematics is a strange discipline because I think it too falls into the category of a soulful science. But as Keith Devlin observed in The Millennium Problems translating deep cutting edge mathematics to the general public can be very difficult, because there is less room to use metaphor and analogy than in the natural sciences. Technical hurdles are not barrier if analogy and visuals can substitute, but this does not seem so easy for many deep mathematical questions.

I believe therefore the issue here is to a large extent demand side. People get worked up over controversy, and emotionally invested in topics which cross the threshold of deep emotional commitment. Whether we are simply another primate, or sui generis and a Special Creation, fits that bill. More practical, and very important in an economic sense, endeavors may not fit the bill.

Note: I think other factors are at work as well. Climate science is popular because of its high profile in public policy right now and the potential existential implications. There are probably other hidden factors too. Why is neuroscience blogging more well developed than psychology blogging (or at least so a psych blogger has complained to me)? Neuroscience is a young field which is maturing right now, and perhaps it simply has the right demographic profile which allowed it to bloom very quickly in the next technological context. And I also think fMRI images are preferable to another stock photo of rats in a maze!

Image Credit: NASA

• Category: Science • Tags: Blog, Blogs 
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He asks: Has Technorati suddenly gotten useful again? I’m tempted to take a look at Technorati again, though since I switched domains I’ll probably wait up until the shift from ScienceBlogs percolates through the web. One thing to note, John probably relies a bit more on reciprocal linking as the lubricant for discussion because he has no comments on this weblog.

• Category: Science • Tags: Blog, Blogs, Social Networking 
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Just a reminder, Andrew Gelman is now blogging at ScienceBlogs under “Applied Statistics”.

• Category: Science • Tags: Blogs 
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Andrew Gelman has started a new blog at ScienceBlogs, Applied Statistics. Someone should design him a header, perhaps a fancified Bayes’ theorem?

• Category: Science • Tags: Blogs 
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Earlier this year I put a reader survey. One thing that stuck out was now few children readers of this weblog had. Here’s a comparison with other demographics from the GSS:

Mean Number of Children For Men By For Age Classes
GSS, 2000-2008, Males Only
Age GNXP N GNXP All Males Bachelor’s Degree Advanced Degree Atheists & Agnostics
18-25 84 0 0.24 0.09 (N too small, omitted) 0.28
26-35 140 0.21 1.06 0.53 0.68 0.8
36-45 97 0.9 1.79 1.73 1.56 1.29
46-65 108 1.57 2.22 1.93 2.06 1.82

Below the fold I’ve broken down by demographic for the GNXP male sample 46-65, which has an N of 108 total (though some questions were omitted for some individuals). I added the political extremes and centers together (e.g., Far Left + Center Left + Left = Left)

GNXP Males 46-65 # Of Children
N 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 Mean # Of Children
Middle Class 43 0.3 0.23 0.3 0.09 0.05 0.02 0 1.4
Upper Middle Class 40 0.25 0.15 0.3 0.18 0.08 0.03 0.03 1.85
Graduate Degree 59 0.27 0.12 0.37 0.15 0.05 0.02 0.02 1.73
Undergraduate Degree 33 0.33 0.3 0.18 0.12 0.03 0.03 0 1.29
Left 38 1.76
Libertarian 32 1.74
Right 24 1.32
Christian 25 0.2 0.04 0.44 0.2 0.08 0.04 0 1.44
No Religion 72 0.35 0.24 0.25 0.1 0.06 0.01 0 1.33

Struck by the fact that GNXP male readers who are upper middle class have more children than those who are middle class (subjective definition of course), and, that those with graduate degrees have more children than those with only undergraduate degrees.

• Category: Science • Tags: Blogs 
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The Worst NYT Trend Story of the Year?:

Here’s an early autumnal contender: Virginia Heffernan’s entirely anecdotal story about a massive Facebook Exodus. How serious is this Facebook exodus? Heffernan explains:

The exodus is not evident from the site’s overall numbers.

The exodus is not evident from the site’s overall numbers! Some trend!

This is a serious problem. Anecdotes add spice to real data. As illustrations of something real. Too often journalism involves finding five people on the street who can agree with whatever “trend” you’ve made up. This reminds of how I was taught to write essays in Middle School, make up a thesis and find n facts to support the thesis. Who cares if those facts are representative of the distribution of facts in the real world! You got your thesis and you know what you are looking for. And secondarily, there is the problem of trends are so widely accepted as to become background assumptions, but which turn out to be false upon even cursory examination.

• Category: Science • Tags: Blogs, Media 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"